WTF is SRS?

Here at Betterish, you’ll hear us preach ad nauseum about the benefits of Anki for language (or really, any type of) learning. But to really understand why the tool is so powerful, you have to dig in a little bit to learn what is behind the acronym. Or more specifically, the learning potential hiding in the letters R and S.

SRS is pretty much flashcards on steroids

Spaced Repetition, the words behind those powerful initials is a learning process that maximizes the odds of getting information from your short-term into your long-term memory. Think back to all those vocabulary tests you’ve probably taken in Japanese. Remember that half folded piece of paper you used to rehearse vocabulary, kanji, or even grammar points? Remember how exactly 37 minutes after you finished your exam, you couldn’t even remember what the test was on? Spaced repetition keeps you from doing stupid shit like that.

While researchers have been studying interval learning and space repetition for almost 100 years now, it’s really only been in the past few decades that people have been able to take advantage of these powerful learning methods. SRS, or Spaced Repetition Software, works on the principles of—you guessed it—spaced repetition. Paper flashcards, while a tool that’s better than nothing, fail to work in the long term because the sheer number of cards you have to accumulate to master the intricacies of a language is completely unmanageable. Using a program allows the computer to take care of optimizing the scheduling of the learning material and frees you from unproductive tasks like sorting and storing physical decks to maximize not only your study time, but language retention. But SRS not only takes care of the administrative legwork, it takes all the guesswork out of when to study what card.

Instead of cramming everything into your brain up front and hoping that you’ll remember it later (protip: you won’t), with this method you’ll be exposed to your learning points (those vocab, kanji, grammar points) quite a few times in the beginning and each time you successfully remember your fact, the card will appear with far less frequency until it’s become part of your working knowledge.

The spaced repetition method is a tool for long-term language acquisition. That’s a key point: It’s not going to help if your test is tomorrow, but it will allow you to learn and retain more than you thought possible. Since our goal is not to just help you pass the JLPT but to gain a functional grasp of the Japanese language, spaced repetition is exactly what we’re after.

So why Anki?

Simply put, it’s the industry standard.

There are plenty of other programs out there which use the principles of spaced repetition to learn a pre-defined set of cards, but they don’t give you the flexibility to add your own cards or edit existing cards as works best for you. There are also other, high quality SRS programs that are either expensive, OS-specific, or lack a mobile client. The ability to study whenever you have a moment to spare makes the lack of a phone app a complete deal breaker for us. Anki’s flexibility also means that you can study for the JLPT, learn the lyrics to your favorite songs, boost your geography knowledge, remember stats from your favorite sports team, memorize historical trivia, or become a better computer programmer, all with the same program.

But the best part is that Anki is also free to use!

..Well, kinda.

If you’re an Android user like I am, Ankidroid is free to use ( 🙂 ). If you have an iOS device, you will be punished. Damien Elmes, the developer of the program, makes his profit from iOS app sales. At $24.99 in the App store, I’ll be the first to admit, it’s a shitload of money for an app, but you can’t begrudge the man for making a living. And here’s the thing: it’s not an app like Flappy Bird or Snapchat. It’s a tool that will become invaluable in your JLPT studies for less than the price of a textbook. And if you’re not convinced, the program is free to use on Mac, PC, and the web, so you can try it out at home before you buy it to see if it’s right for you. If you find you simply can’t stomach the cost of the app, you can access Ankiweb from your phone’s browser. You will need a constant internet connection to do so, but it will allow you to do your reviews when you’re out and about.

But for all the praise that I’ve lavished on Anki, I need to point out that your flashcards on steroids come with side effects. The enlarged gonads, as it were, to Anki software is the nightmarishly over complicated and unintuitive user interface. Ostensibly the extensive documentation should explain the ins and outs of using the program, but I often find myself more confused after consulting the manual than I was before.

That’s where we come in. There are countless mysteries and features hidden in the half-comprehensible docs and FAQ, many of which I have sussed out over years of annoyance via trial and error, reverse engineering decks crafted by other people, and serendipitously finding oddly-named tools hiding in one of the program’s labyrinth of context-specific menus. We will be sharing not only the basics of Anki (since the official documentation is pretty much worthless for a newbie), but also methods to tweak an existing deck to work even better for you.

What are your experiences with spaced repetition learning? Do you have a reason why another SRS program blows Anki out of the water? We’d love to hear about it! And feel free to leave your Anki questions in the comments below.

 

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